"Never before on any screen!"
"Stranger than you dared imagine!"
"Parents, warn your children! It's ... Old People in Love!"
No, this is definitely not the advertising campaign for Paul Cox's supergenteel "Innocence," but given how infrequently its subject matter is filmed, it might as well be. In fact, the last passionate kiss between English-speaking actors of a certain age might be the potent embrace Melvyn Douglas shared with Lila Kedrova in the Tillie Olsen-inspired "Tell Me a Riddle," directed by Lee Grant in 1980.
So "Innocence's" tale of lovers reunited after half a century is certainly welcome, especially in this youth-obsessed era when sex on screen is uncompromisingly age-specific.
Cox is a veteran Australian writer-director whose idiosyncratic films ("Lonely Hearts," "Man of Flowers," "Vincent," among many others) always go their own way. He's done a graceful, even admirable job here, but the film never quite shakes its self-consciousness about just how special it is and that is a hindrance.
One of the film's nicest touches is visible at once. While we hear the seventysomething Andreas (Charles Tingwell) reading a letter to his first love, Claire (Julia Blake), what we see are images from that youthful affair. This melding of the past and present reinforces the poignant notion that in their hearts and minds, these people have not aged, no matter what the calendar may insist.
Having heard that they now once again live nearby, Andreas wants to reconnect with the woman he's never forgotten. Claire agrees but warns him that she's "a fragile old lady with a son and three grandchildren."
The meeting goes well, so well in fact that Andreas, a widower for 30 years, pushes for more. Claire, married to the same man for 44 years, is more tentative. Although her marriage is in the "we're really good friends" stage (not the most promising sign), she feels "we're too old to ruin our lives and hurt people who love us."
This kind of thinking is anathema to the more impulsive Andreas, a bohemian sort who resists following the rules when they get in the way of what he and the film think really matters. A retired musician, Andreas can't abide the notion that at a certain point "life simply becomes life."
As much as Andreas pushes for their liaison, that's how much Claire's formerly complaisant husband, John, opposes it. As played by Terry Norris, Blake's real-life spouse of 30 years, John is the craggy-faced clubby type who would have been played by C. Aubrey Smith if "Innocence" had been made in the 1930s. Although the film is careful not to make John an out-and-out villain, his obtuseness and, shall we say, neglect of conjugal duties count heavily against him.
It's not surprising that both of these men are fighting for Claire's attentions, because as played by Cox veteran Blake, she is easily the most appealing person in the film, clear-eyed, passionate and uncompromising in the best sense. Without her involvement, much of what transpires would seem simply implausible.
Unfortunately, the rest of "Innocence" doesn't always rise to Blake's level. There are numerous contrivances in the plotting and the character of the ardent Andreas turns out to be weighted down by some of the same irritants that plague the film as a whole.
Maybe it's his cravat, his dithering voice, his eternal boyishness or his habit of asking such fatuous questions as "How do you define memories?" but Andreas is not a character who wears particularly well. Like "Innocence," there's something overly fussy about him, a sense of preciousness that the film shares to its disadvantage.
Still, it is sweet and even disarming to see these two fall in love again, and not chastely either. "Love is all that matters, everything else is rubbish," Andreas says at one point, clearly speaking the filmmaker's mind.
Even if the idea behind "Innocence" outweighs its execution, it's hard to get angry at a film that embraces that.
Unrated. Times guidelines: It's all extremely genteel.
Julia Blake: Claire
Charles Tingwell: Andreas
Terry Norris: John
Robert Menzies: David
Marta Dusseldorp: Monique
An Illumination Films production, presented by Fireworks Pictures and Cinemavault Releasing, released by IDP Distribution. Director Paul Cox. Producers Paul Cox, Mark Patterson. Executive producer William T. Marshall. Screenplay Paul Cox. Cinematographer Tony Clark. Editor Simon Whitington. Costumes Bernadette Corstens. Music Paul Grabowsky. Production design Tony Cronin. Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes.
In limited release.